During the Metrolinx Electrification Study, those of us who attended various workshops became aware that there was a parallel study of capacity issues at Union Station. The electrification plans are, among other things, in support of operating better service on GO generally, but if that service won’t physically fit through Union Station and its approach corridors, there’s a big problem.
That problem is independent of electrification per se because The Big Move from Metrolinx depends on substantially improved commuter rail service. No capacity, no additional service.
At the recent Metrolinx Board meeting, GO’s President, Gary McNeil, presented an update on GO operations and construction activity.
The report includes a reference to Union Station capacity:
… Retaining wall construction is well underway to allow for an additional track in this corridor. The Union Station capacity study has been completed, with the result that in the near term, there is capacity at this station to meet needs. With the start of design of double berthing and new south platform, this will provide access required for service expansions. This work is anticipated to be completed in the next five years. [Page 8]
After the meeting, I requested a copy of the study to learn what conclusions it might have reached. Various working papers from the study had been leaked, but they were neither definitive nor entirely coherent on how to deal with the problem.
Metrolinx has now replied that:
At this time, a detailed public component of the Union Station study is premature as we are undertaking on-going research. Specific information will most likely be available for the public when future potential projects develop from this study.
The purpose of the study is to assess the Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC) train capacity at four time points:
- completion of planned infrastructure in 2015 and implementation for service improvements, including the ARL;
- Electrification Reference Case (ERC);
- and 2031 (Big Move planning document).
In doing so, we hope to identify opportunities to increase capacity by making more effective use of existing and planned infrastructure. We also hope to identify the infrastructure needed to address any capacity shortfalls. This study provided only a technical analysis, and Metrolinx will consider its opportunities after further assessment.
However, there is a good deal of material to get started on.
First off, the capacity problem is not some far-distant issue, but one that GO must address today.
- Current schedules and operating patterns use all available capacity in peak times (24 GO Trains per hour in peak time). Bottlenecks are happening in the Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC), not in the Union Station train shed and there cannot be any additional peak trains without negatively affecting the on-time performance.
- By 2015, there will 24 GO Trains per hour in peak time, plus 4 Air Rail Link trains. At this time, service levels can be accommodated with the planned infrastructure.
This means that if you were hoping for additional peak hour service in the next four years, you shouldn’t hold your breath. Existing runs may be extended to more remote destinations, but there isn’t capacity for more trains in that peak hour. This also means that the number of commuters entering Union is capped by what these trains can carry. Extension to 12-car trains will help, but that is of limited benefit on corridors that already have long trains.
Looking at the higher service level in the Electrification Reference Case, the study concluded that:
- the service did not operate with an acceptable on-time performance level (based on the RTP/GO 2020 planning documents).
- the ERC provided a conceptual service level, not an operational schedule.
- with minor adjustments, an actual ERC schedule could function with an acceptable on-time performance.
- [the service] requires a new south platform and changes to both GO and VIA operations.
- up to 44 GO Trains per hour in the peak is the approximate capacity upper limit.
The Big Move requires an even higher level of service on the GO corridors than in the Electrification Base case, and this brings more challenges.
- significant capacity shortfall inside and outside of the USRC
- additional tracks under Union would need to be installed (4 tracks required). Entraces to the underground would likely be problematic as extra property is required in developed areas. The minimum level below the existing track level would be 23.5 metres and the vertical access requirement would conflict with the City retail area.
Something not mentioned here, but definitely a problem for any construction, is that the ramps to access new underground platforms would have to start well east and west of the station in order to be low enough once they reached the heart of the rail corridor. There is also the small matter of building under a working corridor already at capacity, and the high water table.
It is unclear whether any allowance was made in the study for the different performance characteristics of electric versus diesel trains.
Other findings from the study include:
- Turning trains (versus through trains) increases track occupancy time by 56%, reducing capacity.
- With double berthing, turning trains allows 8 trains per hour compared to 6 through trains per hour, which does increase capacity.
- Wider platforms achieved by track removal is found to reduce train capacity.
- Develop a new south platform by removal of Track 16 (planning and design work is underway).
- Improve capacity (and reliability) with infrastructure modifications to increase straight routing.
- Make relatively minor infrastructure changes to improve the utility of the two connecting tracks for commuter service, while protecting for freight operation.
- Change the GO platform assignments (by 2015) to make better use of capacity.
- Investigate ways to increase platform use with VIA (conversation is underway).
- Proceed with double berthing (work is underway).
Little of this is much surprise to those who have watched and cared for Union Station. With the disappearance of the rail yards and the construction of the CN Tower nearly 40 years ago, preserving capacity in the rail corridor was not high on the priority list. The railways still owned the corridor, and their interest was to maximize development potential.
GO Transit itself was less than 10 years old, and the idea that Union Station would someday need to accommodate vastly more trains and passengers was not on their radar. Only the Lakeshore route operated until Georgetown joined the network in 1974 (the year the CN Tower was topped off), and the double-deck coaches didn’t come into service until 1979, the year GO moved into its “new” east concourse.
Growth in commuting to downtown has been almost entirely handled by GO over past decades while demand on both streets and transit was limited by capacity and parking supply. But even GO has its constraints. While much attention has focused on parking lots and garages all over the GTA, the capacity at Union wasn’t on the table.
With the station’s reconstruction, now underway, GO will get over double the concourse space of the old east wing station, but the trains will require new approaches to operations. Metrolinx planning can no longer afford to assume unlimited capacity in the rail network (or the transit network for that matter). The Big Move 2.0 must include plans for new local and regional infrastructure, not just the movement of virtual passengers in a demand model.
Downtown Toronto continues to grow and it will remain the centre of jobs and office space for decades to come. Yes, there are new schemes in the outer suburbs, but any of these would fit comfortably in the core area and vanish among what is already there. If nothing else, the growth of a “Metropolitan Centre” beyond downtown Toronto simply cannot occur because there isn’t enough transportation capacity in one place to support such a scheme.
Future growth in downtown will depend on having more people living closer to where they work rather than a train ride away in the 905. This has already begun with condos in walking or short transit distance of the core, and will spread to the eastern waterfront. However, if transit doesn’t increase to match this demand, the TTC (and Metrolinx for that matter) will have failed.
Metrolinx crows about its importance in reducing commute trips, pollution and energy needs, but ignores the most important asset right outside its doors — the local transit system. Toronto scrounges for money wherever it can be found, and gets distracted by dreams of new subways and dubious financing schemes.
Just as the expressway, road and parking networks have filled, and today’s challenge is how to wean drivers onto transit, the transit system itself has constraints, some physical, some financial. We are reaping the joys of suburban expansion, but it’s time to take capacity into downtown Toronto much more seriously.